NEEDHAM, Mass. — Politics in Massachusetts is a blood sport. With less than a week to go before party primaries in the race to fill Edward M. Kennedy’s Senate seat, the contest is getting feisty. Tuesday night, in the second of three debates this week, candidates sparred over health care, the Patriot Act, Afghanistan and the economy. It was the most passionate and heated debate of the race so far.
Businessman Steven Pagliuca came out swinging. He hammered home the oft-repeated campaign statement that he’d be a “reliable” 60th vote on health care. Pagliuca hammered home the point that he would look past the Stupak Amendment, a rider restricting federal funds for abortion that was added to the House version of the health care bill.
Unlike his rivals Attorney General Martha Coakley and Congressman Michael Capuano, Pagliuca reiterated that he would vote for a health care bill whether or not the abortion exclusion was in it. “I would vote for it, because I want 30 million people covered,” he said. “It’s a very tough decision. I’m pro-choice; I’m pro-federal funding.”
Coakley then stepped in. The usually reserved candidate responded with an uncharacteristically personal tone. “Steve, it’s personal with me,” Coakley said. “And it’s personal for every woman who’s in this, who’s watching this.” It was the first time Coakley obliquely mentioned that she is the only woman in the field of Democratic candidates.
Pagliuca countered, saying his priority is the “45,000 people dying because they have no access to insurance. That’s the greater good.’’
Pagliuca’s pressure on health care drew an aggressive response from Capuano.
“Have you ever known a poor woman who was forced to choose for an abortion without health care coverage?” Capuano pressed. “Have you known one?”
“Yes, I have,” Pagliua responded.
The Somerville congressman pulled no punches. “So have I,” Capuano said, “and you would send them back to the alleys of America? Poor women don’t deserve to be treated that way, and I’m sorry that you feel that way.’’
Pagliuca called that a personal attack typical of Washington politics.
The exchange was just one of several that drew a white-hot line between the candidates. That made Tuesday night’s debate different. In the placid decorum of previous forums, the candidates had difficulty differentiating themselves. The debate grew so fiery at times, City Year co-founder Alan Khazei attempted to make his mark by rising above the fray.
“You know, this whole discussion here, I think is off base,” Khazei said. “We’re all pro-choice; we all want universal health care. I think people at home are saying: How are you going to get that done?”
The question applies to the other issue dominating the nation’s attention: the war in Afghanistan. The Senate debate took place just an hour before President Obama announced that he’ll commit 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. Obama also vowed to start bringing forces home in July 2011.
Massachusetts’ senior Sen. John Kerry supports the strategy. Most of the Democratic candidates, however, do not.
“It seems to me it’s impractical, given what we think the mission is, the number of troops we’re sending over,” Coakley said. “We really won’t be able to be finished in 18 months and start an exit strategy there.”
Pagliuca took a softer line. “We’re talking about the lives of our troops,” he said. “I think the mission’s been completed. We’ve routed out al-Qaida. But I think we should listen to the president. Hear him out. We shouldn’t make this into a political football. That won’t be good for anybody.”
Passions ran unabated Tuesday night, particularly over domestic issues.
When asked if they’d vote for an extension of the USA Patriot Act, Khazei, Pagliuca and Capuano said no. Coakley would not provide a specific answer, saying instead that the Patriot Act could be amended to protect civil rights.
“That what’s this is always about. Protecting people. Keeping people safe without violating civil rights,” Coakley said. “That’s what I’ve been doing for two and a half decades of my life.”
Capuano, never backing down from a fight, jumped at what he called Coakley’s history on “both sides” of the issue.
“The Patriot Act takes away civil liberties, unequivocally,” Capuano said.
Coakley told WBUR after the debate that she would not reauthorize the Patriot Act without significant amendments to the law.
But even if Tuesday night’s debate seemed like an overly testy exercise in political pugilism, the candidates were fighting over issues that matter to voters, including the economy, jobs and the pain people feel in the current recession.
WCVB-TV moderator Ed Harding challenged the candidates to connect with voters when he asked them to describe one thing they’d done in their households to adjust in this downturn.
“Mostly for me, lightbulbs,” Capuano said. “A lot of the things I could have done in my own home, I’ve already done.”
Pagliuca, a multi-millionaire, highlighted his charitable work and donations, “because people are hurting out there.”
Khazei also said his family is donating money. “We’re not going to buy as many gifts this holiday season,” he added.
Coakley said she and her husband have reduced their restaurant spending. “We grocery shop and cook in, and don’t eat out as much as we used to,” she said.